Man Ray in Montparnasse, Forever

tomb juliet, man ray
Even on a holiday, there are no crowds
at Man Ray's gravesite.

Celebration For An 'Autodidacte'

Paris:- Friday, 8. May 1998:- Imagine, if you will, Emmanuel Radnitsky meeting a bunch of French Dadaists in New York in 1915, and they weren't even enemy aliens. Emmanuel Radnitsky was born in Philadelphia and he was 25 years old and the meeting changed his life and it wasn't a short one.

It changed his name too, which became what it is today - Man Ray. He came to Paris in 1921 and had an immediate entree with these.... Dadaists. These guys were serious jokesters - so you will know where Man Ray was coming from - or getting away from - Phillie.

One of the Dadaists he met in New York in 1915 was Marcel Duchamp, who was satisfied with his name, and they were lifelong friends.

Today in the sunlit cemetery of Montparnasse, Man Ray and his last wife, Juliet, are in residence. Somebody has left a small pot of yellow flowers on their tomb. I can stand here all day by myself and look at it. If I stay until tomorrow, maybe I will see who brings the fresh flowers.

Across town, at the Grand Palais, great, long crowds are standing in line - if the museum isn't closed on this memorial day - to see an exhibition of 500 of Man Ray's photographs.

The show is put together from a selection of 13,500 negatives and 5,000 prints that the Centre Georges Pompidou, known locally as Beaubourg, is looking after since they were donated in 1994. Beaubourg is closed, so this show is at the Grand Palais, where everything else is on this season.

I am not sure if the sense of the French word 'autodidacte' is pejorative - it means 'self-taught.' Man Ray took his first portraits in 1916 without a professor's blessing, license or diploma.

He was a curious guy so he wasn't satisfied just to do straight portraits; he had to fool around with the materials, to see what else he could get out of them. He did it with paint too but never got it under the control he wanted; and he did it endlessly with chess sets, and he made gizmos and gadget-looking things too.

This was all self-taught and was the result of curiosity. It might be possible to say that if an artist can't learn new things and has no curiosity, then their artists' career is not going to be brilliant. I agree with the French that 'autodidacte' bridge-builders may be a bit risky, but not artists.

I mean, Picasso might have had an art professor or studied with a 'master,' but I don't think they can take a lot of credit foratelier man ray what Picasso did in life. Same with the guys who invented photography - nobody told them to do it or how to do it. They were just fooling around.

When Man Ray got to Paris in 1921 he got a big welcome and had an instant circle of Parisian friends to show him around. Working out of a hotel room, he started work right away and took photos of Gertrude Stein, James Joyce - but also of Matisse, Picaba and Léger.

Man Ray's studio in Montparnasse. He lived at the Hotel Istria, next door.

He got himself a girlfriend too. Her name was Alice Prin but everybody called her Kiki. A lot of people called her this, and in the 1920's she was sort of the Queen of Montparnasse and was known to like a good time.

Man Ray was no slouch at party time either and with a bunch of friends like these Dada people, they had somewhat imaginative parties, with lots of dressing up in costumes and big balls in big places.

In Montparnasse, everybody knew each other. Of course, they are not all bosom buddies, and there were different groups like the Scandinavians and the 'Dômists,' the Dadaists and the Surrealists. These last two might have serious disagreements about 'art,' but they partied together all the same.

Man Ray went over to the surrealists after a while and he is mainly identified with them today. I don't think these labels make any difference; what counted with Man Ray is his endless curiosity, his willingness to experiment, and his capacity to work a lot.

A hack likes to master a technique and if a living can be gained from exercising it, then this is what the hack will most likely do - for a lifetime.

This can usually be taught, so clones of hacks can be turned out to satisfy society's needs. This can also result in all sorts of spin-off activities, such as teaching hackism to young hacks-to-be, criticizing'guitar de max' hack work, promoting hack work; buying, selling and distributing hack work. On this basis, hacks outnumber artists by 10,000 to one.

There is a lot of this class of public opinion which an artist has to ignore or come to terms with, because what artists do is totally at odds with hackdom. There is constant danger of being tarred and feathered and run out of town on a rail.

Little-known copy of Man Ray idea by a hack.

Paris fits into this scheme of things by having had the oasis' of Montmartre and Montparnasse, two areas were artists had more status than hacks; where they were in fact, local heros. In between the two areas, there were and are the districts of letters - literature - and commerce.

A little bit of literature helps to promote art and a bit of commerce helps to keep everybody in rent money, which artists don't mind any more than hacks do.

As a guy who fooled around with photography, Man Ray managed to get far ahead of his time - and you can see this in his photos today. As crazy as they might have seemed to hacks in the '20's, most ordinary people can easily appreciate them in our time.

There are jokes. And these are outright gags - not something for arty insiders. You are supposed to laugh out loudsculpture academy if you feel like it. A lot of people laughed a lot in Montparnasse in the '20's - at least until Wall Street went belly-up: but that was after the party had been going on for ten years.

The famous 'sculpture academy' in the rue de la Grand Chaumière.

In 1923 Man Ray was making his first film - sort of by hand, frame by frame. It was called, appropriately enough, 'Retour à la Raison.' In 1926 he was doing fashion photos for 'Vogue' and these were shown in the Brooklyn Museum. Two years later, he started working for the weekly magazine, 'Vu.' In between there were more films, many more photos, new techniques, more chess sets, more parties, and gradually, new girlfriends.

There was a documentary film about Man Ray on TV recently. It appeared to lack a budget necessary to really get at the subject - all the rights to everything are tied up.

But there were a couple of short film sequences that showed Man Ray at work. If you have worked in a darkroom, some of this would have looked a bit familiar. It also reminded me of the time involved; you almost always have to do 'just one more print.'

I know that it's possible to get up to a lot of trick stuff in a darkroom - enough so that no two prints are identical. Man Ray's equipment was of the time - before 35mm for example - and he had his hands in there, doing things straight onto the negative. This kind of stuff isn't for the faint-hearted. If it doesn't work, you have to get another negative to work on of course.

So, even with skill, some of the effects - like solarization - would have 'accidental' results. If built right into the negative, then reproducible; if not, then strictly one-off.

Another thing Man Ray did that anybody working in a darkroom can do, was crop the negatives to get the exact print he wanted. Often only one, one unique print would be made. The negative itself was not cropped.

It is easy to reproduce photo prints from negatives. What is not easy to do, is crop them exactly like somebody else's original print. On top of this, other things are usually done while producing 2bis rue ferouthe print and as these are done 'on the fly' and by intuition, and there's nobody keeping notes, it is nearly impossible to reproduce the original artist's print.

Another of Man Ray's studios; at 2 bis, rue Férou.

There are a lot of Man Ray's negatives around for one reason or another, and there a good number of prints being made from these that are being passed off as originals. Very, very expensive originals.

Man Ray left Paris in 1940, went to New York, and then lived a lot in Hollywood until returning to Paris in 1951. He resumed work here, collected prizes, had a life as an artist all his life long, and was buried in the Montparnasse cemetery in 1976.

His wife Juliet joined him in 1991. Both of them have a lot of artist friends in Montparnasse cemetery, and in other cemeteries around Paris. A lot of people who were in Montparnasse in the '20's have written a lot about it and Man Ray published his autobiography 'Self- Portrait' in 1963.

Note: all photographs with this feature have been altered by the author. Originals are seldom perfectly framed, and in the case of using a digital camera, there are often undesirable video artifacts and inexact colors. Thus all photos have been altered in one or several ways. Once placed online, all the photos are 'as they are.' How they look will depend on how your monitor is set up, how many colors you have, and how much the photos have been degraded by their particular file-coding, and their passage through the Internet. You have inexact copies and I have the originals, in other words.

Exhibition: Man Ray - La Photographie à l'Envers

Until Monday, 29. June, in the Galeries Nationales of the Grand Palais.

Galeries Nationales du Grand Palais
Open daily, except Tuesdays, from 10:00. Without reservations, from 13:00 to 20:00. Entry: Square Jean Perrin. Métro: Champs-Elysées-Clemenceau.

Reservations for this exhibition at the Grand Palais can be made and are necessary for visits between 10:00 and 13:00. No reservations are necessary for visits beginning at 13:00. Try to time your visit for around 17:00 when most people are elsewhere. For further details about the reservation system, see Café Metropole in this issue.

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